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Looking Back in Anger: People Still Paying for Modi’s Lockdown

The speech that shut down India’s economy and made millions jobless and homeless was delivered a year ago today.
COVID-19 India Lockdown

Stranded migrant workers during lockdown. | Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

A year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did what he does best: Celebrate himself. In a televised “address to the nation” at 8:00 p.m. on 24 March 2020, he announced that the country would go into one of the most stringent of lockdowns by global standards from the next day. The citizenry had been given under four hours to prepare for a complete disruption of their lives.

The only saving grace was that essential supplies would be available, with neighbourhood shops remaining open. Chemists shops, too, remained open, whilst of the multitude of poor people in the informal sector who lost their livelihoods some reinvented themselves as itinerant vendors delivering foodstuff—vegetables, fish and fruit—virtually to people’s doorsteps, in cities across the country.

Before we get to the multifarious ways in which this peremptory imposition hurt millions of people and defeated its purpose in the first place, a few words are necessary about one of its political dimensions. Modi has shown himself to be a narcissistic and authoritarian leader ever since he came into public life as chief minister of Gujarat. These traits have been magnified after his ascension to prime ministerial office.

This is evident in a political style that promotes the cult of personality and which packages governance as being beyond interrogation, ipso facto.

The citizen is, thus, invited to take policy and its implementation on trust, because it has Modi’s imprimatur. What makes this style worse is Modi’s obvious incompetence in practically all arenas of governance.

While the prime minister’s political skills, undergirded by his frequent recourse to all manner of dog-whistling, are highly developed, he lacks basic governance skills, as evident in the woeful mismanagement of the economy. Even in the years running up to the pandemic he managed to demolish the economy by botching the GST rollout and through demonetisation.

Before the lockdown, the address to the nation in which, again, Modi announced another kind of demonetisation at a few hours’ notice, remained the perfect example of unthought-through prime ministerial caprice. The demolition of the economy despite favourable conditions obtaining, like rock-bottom global oil prices which slashed the import bill, was in stark contrast to the previous government’s economic management in the adverse circumstances of the global meltdown of 2008, the effects of which obviously persisted for several years.

Returning to the lockdown, it was clear then and is more than abundantly clear in retrospect that there had been no compulsion at the end of March 2020 to announce a shutdown at four hours’ notice. Early signals from outside the country since January and from within since the end of February had been obvious to anyone paying minimal attention. It would hardly have been too much to expect that Modi and his government would have started planning for an inevitable lockdown of some description, informed the “public” and only then imposed the lockdown. But that seemed not to have been an option because Modi’s government is addicted to opacity, falsehood and grandstanding.

Of the many things that were wrong about the lockdown and the manner of its imposition, let us look at two. It is hardly a secret that while India is politically a nation-state, geographically it is a subcontinent. This means that there are huge variations within the country in terms of local imperatives generated by diverse conditions in, broadly speaking, the social, economic and infrastructural arenas.

The imposition of the lockdown needed to be sensitive to these variations. China, the only country in the world comparable to India in terms of both geographical spread and population size, was sensitive to these dimensions. It did not, therefore, impose a blanket, countrywide lockdown, despite being the first hit and thus having to improvise as it went along more than any other country.

The problem with the Modi regime is that it has no respect for the federal part of the Indian polity. To begin with, Indian federalism is significantly circumscribed. Residuary powers that rest with the central government make India at best quasi-federal. But even that can work if the dispensation in Delhi respects the basic federal principle. This regime does not.

Thus, instead of enabling the states financially and logistically in the campaign against Covid-19 and coordinating interstate implementation, while giving them the leeway to fashion their own strategies in accordance with local needs, the Modi regime conducted a nationwide campaign by ukase, failed to provide adequate support and revelled only in the role of playing cops-and-robbers, especially targeting Opposition-ruled states in a manner that hindered rather than helped.

The second problem was, of course, that the lockdown left migrant workers stranded at their place of work, without the work or wages. This, in turn, meant that instead of being at home where their expenses could have been significantly reduced, they were having to pay rent and buy food, often in the face of rising prices and poor supply.

Most of those who attempted to make their way back home regardless of lockdown protocols were intercepted en route and interned in insanitary camps where they were provided inadequate food and no possibility of the physical distancing that the government was urging upon the citizenry.

As then, so now in hindsight, it was or is obvious that the government should have given advance notice to all those who were away from home either on work or for other reasons. This would have allowed people, especially the migrant workers, to make their way home safely at a time when the pandemic was still under control.

In addition, surely, the central government had the responsibility to provide special trains for migrant workers who were about to lose their livelihoods to get back home. Yet, the government just imposed the lockdown and sat back, oblivious to the travails especially of the migrant workers.

It was only in May, five weeks or so after the imposition of the lockdown that it woke from its somnolent state and decided as suddenly and without forewarning as it had announced the lockdown that special trains would be provided and the migrant workers could go home, provided that either they themselves or the governments of their home states footed the bill. The Indian Railways would not. This created chaos in many places.

Two things had happened by that time, however. First, the pandemic had begun to spread despite the lockdown; and, second, desperate people had begun to journey homewards as best they could—sometimes traversing impossibly long distances on foot. The latter led not just to untold and unnecessary hardship, but in many cases to the deaths of a large number of people. The former meant an acceleration of the spread of the virus, especially when people were travelling out of badly affected states like Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

As a result of the Modi government’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic, despite, it appears, favourable circumstances provided by the country’s climate and demographic profile, a number of states are now in the throes of a second wave of infections, while the economy, which had already been struggling, has tanked. Despite numerous economists advising direct cash transfers to those in poverty to alleviate hardship and help kick-start the economy by creating domestic demand, the Modi government has only provided for easier credit. We hear rhetoric about “green shoots”, but they do not seem to be visible.

Unfortunately, while the Modi regime sowed the wind, ordinary people, especially the poor, are reaping the whirlwind.

The author is an independent journalist and researcher. The views are personal.

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